On January 11, 2015, France’s first-choice right-back Mathieu Debuchy suffered a dislocated shoulder 13 minutes into Arsenal’s 3-0 win over Stoke. With his deputy Calum Chambers missing through injury, the 19-year-old Hector Bellerin came off the bench. A week later he played against Manchester City in a 2-0 victory that changed everything; Arsenal had a new right-back.
This summer, Debuchy will be watching France at Euro 2016 from his sofa while texting his agent about a mooted move to West Ham, Chambers will recover from England Under-21 duty while pondering a possible loan switch back to Southampton and Bellerin will be in France representing Spain at the age of 21 while trying not to listen to the Barcelona buzzing in his ear.
“Starting at Man City in January, beating a big team when we had struggled before, that was when the team really came together, and when I thought, ‘Yes, I can do it’,” said Bellerin in December. According to recent comments by Lee Dixon, the Arsenal coaching staff – Steve Bould in particular – thought the young Spaniard was far from ready; like Francis Coquelin – who produced a masterclass in defensive midfield that day – he was a lovely, lovely surprise.
Would Arsene Wenger have spent £16m on Chambers in the summer of 2014 if he had been convinced that he was sitting on a gem in Bellerin? Certainly, there was no fanfare when he returned from a forgettable loan spell at Watford. “He’s a good kid and it didn’t really work out too well for him here,” said Hornets captain Troy Deeney long after Bellerin had established himself as Arsenal’s first-choice right-back.
Not everybody is convinced even now. A Twitter search for ‘Bellerin defending’ finds Arsenal fans describing his actual defending as awful, terrible or just plain sh*t. Some urge the Gunners to accept any big money from Barcelona and buy a ‘proper’ full-back. Tellingly, a rare dissenting voice comes from a Portuguese journalist who says ‘Bellerin is uncharacteristically good at defending’. By continental standards, Bellerin is ‘too timid to attack’ but to Arsenal fans reared on Dixon and Bacary Sagna, Bellerin is far too much of a Duracell bunny, too often relying on his pace to get him out of trouble.
It’s a bizarre accusation to level at any player – that they use their strengths to their advantage. Bellerin has the energy and the pace to be able to push forward and then recover, but some would prefer he just stays where he ‘should’ be in the first place. Statistics that make him the Premier League’s best dribbling defender will do little to convince those that would have him concentrate on discipline and positioning.
He is certainly an antidote to the right-back stylings of Premier League winner Danny Simpson, who barely crossed the half-way line all season, and those of Branislav Ivanovic, very much blessed with the physique (particularly the arse) of a centre-half. Both have been preferred to Bellerin in various teams of the season, though the Spaniard was acknowledged by his peers in the PFA.
It’s important to remember that Bellerin looks like a converted winger exactly because he is a converted winger and that defending is easier to coach than either attacking verve or pace.
“When I first came to Arsenal, I didn’t know how to defend,” admitted Bellerin in December. “If there was a person who I had to identify as helping me a lot, that would have to be Bould. I was a winger but from the Under-18s up, I remember him just showing me the basics. Even then, I remember him sometimes holding his head like, ‘What is Hector doing?’.”
What is Hector doing? He is going to Euro 2016 with the defending champions, that’s what.